Liberty Defined, Briefly

July 27, 2012

A reader recently asked how I would define liberty.  Great question!

I claim no special expertise, but here is how I would outline the topic:  By “liberty” in a broad sense, I mean to comprehend at least three main categories: life, liberty in a narrower sense, and property.  (These three categories are probably not exhaustive, but that may depend on how narrowly you construe them.  They may also not be perfectly separable—if you think about them enough, they may inevitably blur into each other.  I think they are nevertheless useful categories.)

(See also rights to life, liberty, and property in our state constitutions.)

For all three, the natural right (as against the government and private actors) is not to the thing itself, but to the enjoyment of it (if any) without interference in the form of coercion—that is, being deprived of the thing by force or threat of force.  (Some call this a “negative right”, as opposed to “positive rights”.)

1 — Life

The most basic right—without it, we cannot enjoy any other.

Under the natural law, it is wrong for one private actor to murder another.  To be properly liberal (in the sense of allowing and protecting liberty), the government must not only refrain from killing innocent citizens itself, but must also, to the extent possible, protect them from being murdered by others within, as well as protect the whole nation from invasion from without.

Examples of things that are not permissible under this natural law, properly understood:

  • Murder
  • Abortion
  • Genocide

Examples of things that are permissible (or may even be required) under this natural law, properly understood:

  • Self-defense
  • Defense of others
  • Killing fellow combatants in war
  • Laws against abortion
  • The death penalty

2 — Liberty

Depending on how you count them, this will be the broadest category, comprehending the most subcategories.

At its most basic, liberty means freedom of bodily movement—to be deprived of liberty in this sense is to be imprisoned.  Our government properly takes steps to protect citizens from itself (they cannot be detained or imprisoned without due process); and also from each other, through both the criminal law (e.g., kidnapping) and the civil law (e.g., false imprisonment).

Again, a key element is coercion, through either force or threat of force.  E.g., if a man is in an open space from which he could in theory walk away, but is told that he will be killed if he tries, his liberty is being constrained.

More specific natural rights such as freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, etc. can be conceived of as subsets of this narrower sense of liberty, but you can also imagine categorizing at least some of them equally under property, or life, or considering them categories in their own right.

Examples of things that are not permissible under this natural law, properly understood:

  • A law compelling people to buy health insurance
  • A law compelling an employer to buy abortifacient drugs for his employees
  • Holding security guards hostage as a bargaining chip in your labor dispute

3 — Property

Again, these are “negative rights”, the right not to have these things taken from you; properly understood, there are no natural positive rights.  You do not have a “right” to make as much money as the next guy.  You do not have a “right” to a bigger house.  You do not have a “right” to have someone else pay for your health care.  (In fact, the way some people would put it is that there are no government-created “positive rights” without slavery, without compelling someone else to do things for you, either directly or indirectly—which would of course be a violation of his liberty.)

Examples of things that are not permissible under this natural law, properly understood:

  • Stealing
  • Voting to take money from some citizens to give it to others (i.e., stealing)
  • A law compelling civilians to quarter soldiers in their homes

Required under this natural law:

  • Laws protecting property rights (e.g., laws against stealing, trespassing, vandalism)

Permissible under this natural law:

  • Making a lot of money by means that are not otherwise immoral or illegal

This is in stark contrast to the way our prevailing culture understands government and its monopoly on the legitimate use of force, which is that they may as well be used as not, as may seem best to us in any particular case.  That is not correct.  Liberty is a great good, to be guarded jealously and kept as large as possible, which necessarily means vigilantly keeping the government as small as is practicable.

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11 Responses to “Liberty Defined, Briefly”

  1. Snoodickle Says:

    You have defined all three categories as both negative and positive liberties, as they relate to the government. If life and property were purely negative liberties, as you allege, the government would have no obligation to enact laws against murder and theft. It simply couldn’t murder and thieve itself. It would be wholly incumbent upon private citizens to protect themselves against other private citizens.

    Also, are you claiming the government has no obligation to recognize validly performed marriages, even between a man and a woman?


  2. Well, no, that’s not what “positive liberties” or “positive rights” means. The rights are defined in terms of the individual. A negative right to something is the individual’s right not to have the thing taken away from him (by force or threat of force); a positive right is his right to be provided with it if he doesn’t already have it.

    Given that we have these natural negative rights, yes, it is incumbent upon each of us not to infringe on others’ rights, but also a big part of why we have government at all is so that it can safeguard our rights from each other.

    If you disagree, what do you think is the point of government?

    Note that you would also be disagreeing with our Declaration of Independence:

    . . . that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, . . . That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men . . . .

    If you like, yes, these rights predate the existence of government (certainly they predate the modern nation-state), but that’s yet another point against even the possibility of natural positive rights: Before government existed, what would it mean for someone to have a “right” to health care, for example? (Even with government, now, what would it mean for someone to have a positive right to be provided with life if he doesn’t already have it?)

    Yes, I do think the government should recognize marriages. I’m not sure that has anything to do with liberty.

    • Snoodickle Says:

      You do realize that government recognition of marriage is a positive right, yes? Again, if marriage were purely a negative liberty, the government would have no obligation to affirmatively recognize the institution; it would merely have to refrain from interfering with it.

      As to the paragraph in the Declaration of Independence, nowhere does it distinguish between “negative” and “positive” rights. As you pointed out, that passage seems to be referring to natural, God-given rights, which could include any number of things; the right to an education, the right to worship freely, the right to be married, the right to health care, free speech, etc. Some of those liberties are negative, some are positive, some are both negative and positive.

      According to your own description, the right to life, liberty, and property are not purely negative liberties. If the government is required to affirmatively aid us in preserving those rights, they have a distinctly positive element. According to you, we have a right to have a government police force to protect our lives, liberty, and property. I would tend to agree with you on that point, but if it is indeed true, we also have a right to a fire department and paramedics to preserve those very same liberties. You yourself have characterized the right to health care as a “positive liberty.” Well, what do you call the right to emergency medical care if not the right to health care? Are you now alleging that the right to health care is a negative liberty? Or are you claiming that the right to life includes the right to a police force but not the right to a fire department or paramedics?

      This is all to show that the distinction between “negative” and “positive” liberties is ofttimes a blurry one, and trying to say that we are purely a nation of negative liberties is just plain wrong. As I’ve pointed out before, your notion of liberty is confusing, and doesn’t comport with how I would characterize the term. But that just shows that the term itself is not cut and dry, and you shouldn’t try to claim ultimate authority on the subject.

    • Snoodickle Says:

      Ah yes, the National Review article that is utterly and shockingly nonsensical.


  3. “This is all to show that the distinction between ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ liberties is ofttimes a blurry one, and trying to say that we are purely a nation of negative liberties is just plain wrong. As I’ve pointed out before, your notion of liberty is confusing, and doesn’t comport with how I would characterize the term. But that just shows that the term itself is not cut and dry, and you shouldn’t try to claim ultimate authority on the subject.”

    In other words, “Philosophers have studied these ideas for centuries—and our whole country is founded on them—but after spending five minutes reading some blog entry about them, I’m still confused; so they must all have been wrong.”

    • Snoodickle Says:

      I ask you again, is the right to government recognition of marriage a positive liberty?

      By the way, that “blogger” is a Yale-trained lawyer and law professor.


    • By “some blog entry”, I meant my own (above), but sure, I’ll amend my criticism of your position:

      You are saying, in effect, “Philosophers have studied these ideas for centuries—and our whole country is founded on them—but after spending five minutes reading some blog entry about them, and another ten minutes reading another blog entry by a law professor, I’m still confused; so they must all have been wrong.”

      As to your questions about marriage, get back to me when you actually want to understand my and our founders’ position.

      • Snoodickle Says:

        I ask you again, is the right to government recognition of marriage a positive liberty?


      • Yes, if you like, you can think of it that way, but then you have to remember that there are multiple sense of “right”. What you are talking about is a legal right, not a natural right. As discussed above, there are no natural positive rights.


  4. […] (apparently including foreign aid)—you know, the core function of the federal government, the main reason for having a federal government at all—comes in at […]


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